When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, I certainly dug Warhol. If you were a hip kid back then (I wasn't) or even a hip-kid wannabe (that was me), you didn't have a lot of choice in the matter: the spirit of Pittsburgh's oddest son so pervaded the Cooltown of Sonic Youth and the Smiths, Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, that denouncing Andy would've been tantamount to admitting your enthusiasm for all those others was pure posture.
That's not to say I had to will myself to like Warhol. From my first glimpses of the Marilyns and Elvises, Jackie O's and Brillo boxes, soup cans and electric chairs, some irony-loving lobe of my brain sat up grinning—so digging the cat was never the devotional chore just exposing myself to some other hyper-hip figures of the era proved to be. (Did I mention Bret Easton Ellis?)
Eleven years of college only approbated those twinges of naked ironic pleasure, buttressing them with the more cerebral reasons we all recite now for advancing Warhol as a no-effing-around Major Figure: that he erased the silly (not to mention sanctimonious, not to mention essentialist) line between art and commerce.
That he demonstrated emptying the self to be as great a trick as plumbing its depths.
That he illustrated more convincingly than any other artist the extent to which we moderners have foregone reality to live in what Robert Hughes calls the Empire of Signs.
And so on.
A visit to MoMA a few months ago, though, reminded me forcefully why we keep going back to the same artworks over and over again as we age:
The damn things change.
No matter how many years dead their creators.
I didn't realize till four or five weeks after that MoMA trip (the main delight of which was the Cindy Sherman retrospective) some Warhol I'd seen had gut-punched me, had messed me up on a level that had me thinking about our tinsel-headed friend at least once a day, every day, all those weeks later.
The craziest part was I couldn't even remember the picture that had gotten me.
I still can't. I just know it was something I'd seen plenty of times before—something from the early period, before Warhol eschewed painterly effects (drips, smears, blank spaces, muscular brush strokes) for the increasingly hard, lurid, photographic surfaces of his most famous images.
It was something like this, maybe:
All, obviously, mass-media images hand copied, seemingly unfinished. All hitting me now with an emotional wallop, believe it or not, they didn't hit me with when I was younger.
So what's changed?
I think I see now these pictures—and lots of similar Warhols—aren't really about GE TVs, Dr. Scholl's foot stuff, comic-book heroes, tabloid newspapers, or women's wigs.
They're not even about the advertisements that would teach us to crave those things.
I see now the real subject of these pictures isn't in the pictures.
It is, in a way, outside them. Facing them.
The real subject is the viewer of the "original" images—an implied viewer a little entranced, it seems, with what the ads and comic books promise, who believes the promises, who's too tired or innocent or desperate or mind-blasted to come to them with anything like the auto-smirk we in the museum feel obliged to paste on our faces when we round the corner and see the Warhols.
I know, I know. Entranced? At first glance, these images have all the gravitas of junk-mail circulars. The originals were disposable, after all. Literally. Born to die in kitchen trash cans.
But these banal, schlocky images' importance within the implied viewer's life is plain in their having been painted. In their having been framed. If they weren't on some level important—the stuff of dreams, the building blocks of human consciousness—they wouldn't be here for us, painted and presented in this weirdly validating fashion.
That it's an implied viewer's perception we're seeing when we look at the pictures—not just lazy or half-hearted or sloppy mimicry—is clear from those painterly effects: the lacunae, the smears, the drips, the scribbles. They sure look to this viewer like the caresses of a mind too seduced by those images to take them in whole—too breathlessly enchanted, in some maybe sad way, by their promises to pause and fill in the overexposed white blanks we're left with.
Why can't I shake the feeling it's a seriously lonely mind doing this caressing?
Because I don't mind admitting it was one lonely feeling that picture I can't even remember sent me home from MoMA with that day.
Is it that the reproduced images seem designed to lure the lonely? The pre-adolescent zit-faced kid in the dim lunchroom corner? The housewife trapped in a laundry room on a rainy October afternoon? The back-of-the-bus, newspaper-hidden commuter, dully aware of an ache in his shoes?
I don't know. I guess.
But these early Warhols, so much quieter and sadder—so much less fame- and death-obsessed—than the stuff the Silver Factory would be churning out a few years later, sure do give me the fantods now.
I guess I always figured Warhol boiled down to a big chain-yank. That his audacious, well-nigh unprecedented trick was creating art that invited viewers to be absolute nobodies feeling absolutely nothing.
I'm thinking now I was wrong. That there's way more heart there—more love for and identification with the lonely and little people (so they must have looked passing on the sidewalk down under the Factory windows)—than I ever somehow saw before.